Trade Deadline Preview: AL East Edition

The only division with all five teams above .500 features five legitimate playoff contenders and the biggest turnaround story in the American League. Expect the AL East to play a big part in deadline trade season over the next few weeks.

BOSTON RED SOX

Someday someone will go back and deconstruct what happened between 2012 and 2013 that made a terribly disappointing Red Sox team surge back to the top of the division. Blame a small piece of it on chemistry and Bobby Valentine if you like. But warm and fuzzy feelings in the clubhouse can’t begin to describe the monumental turnaround this team has experienced. David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury have stayed healthy, which has helped immensely. So, too, has the health and much-improved performance of John Lackey, pitching as well as he has since Anaheim. The back of the bullpen has been shaky at times, but nothing compared to last year’s early-season debacle.

So the question for the vastly improved, first-place Red Sox is what they might want. While the stats don’t reflect it, starting pitching is the team’s biggest area of need, the one place where you could see something close to a blockbuster go down. Clay Buchholz’s would-be breakout season has been derailed by a neck injury, and at this moment there’s no timetable for his return. Jon Lester was supposed to be the staff ace; instead he’s been a train wreck over his past seven starts, posting a 7.30 ERA and a .985 opponents’ OPS. And Ryan Dempster has been a disappointment, too, negating surprisingly strong years for Lackey and Felix Doubront. Whether it’s Cliff Lee, Matt Garza, Jake Peavy, Yovani Gallardo, or someone else, you get the sense that Boston will go after pitching and likely reel in someone good.

The Sox have also been linked to bullpen rumors, which is deceptive. Boston has put up decent numbers as a team from the pen. But save situations have been an adventure for the second year in a row, with the Sox now calling on Koji Uehara to be their fourth closer choice of the season amid injuries and ineffectiveness from several of his relief comrades. Jonathan Papelbon’s name has predictably come up in rumors, but the Sox could easily upgrade their bullpen with a lower-profile choice, maybe someone like Jesse Crain of the White Sox.

Whatever the Red Sox decide to do, they can have pretty much anyone they want given what they can offer in return. Between Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Garin Cecchini, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and other intriguing talents in the system, the Sox can put together a strong enough package of talent to get any elite player who might become available at the deadline. The goal will be to toe the line between helping the Sox as they continue their run toward the postseason and not sacrificing any prospects destined to become superstars in the big leagues. If the cat-and-mouse game hasn’t started yet, it will very soon.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Does any contending team have more lineup holes than the Yankees? The latest bit of ill news has Mark Teixeira gone for the season with a wrist injury. That means Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, Curtis Granderson, and Francisco Cervelli, all would-be everyday players (or at least netting a good chunk of playing time in Cervelli’s case), are likely out until after the All-Star break, and in several cases longer. (Then again, who the hell knows what’s going on with A-Rod and the Yankees these days?) We’ve documented how those players’ replacements started the year red-hot — improbably keeping the Yankees in the race — before crashing back to earth. Unless you’re a Zoilo Almonte true believer, you can make a strong case that the Yanks have the worst 5-through-9 hitters of any team in the American League.

So what next? These being the Yankees, a team that has made the playoffs 17 times in the past 18 years and has no interest in ever rebuilding, you would have expected them to aggressively add veteran talent. The team’s hot start and the fact that they’re within striking distance of the division lead pretty much assures it. The buzz has them shopping Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, though two not-particularly-good pitchers three months away from free agency might not be all that enticing, or at least not enough to fill lineup holes with above-average players. (Per Jason Collette of Baseball Prospectus, Chamberlain has retired just 23 of the past 40 batters he has faced, while allowing four homers and nine earned runs.) One piece of good news is that Michael Pineda is apparently alive. The 24-year-old right-hander, who was expected to be CC Sabathia’s running mate atop the rotation for years to come after coming over from Seattle in the Jesus Montero trade, hasn’t thrown a regular-season pitch since that deal at the end of the 2011 season. But in his most recent rehab start for Double-A Trenton, Pineda dominated, firing six scoreless innings with 56 strikes in 78 pitches, faring well with secondary offerings such as his changeup, and hitting 94 mph with his last pitch of the night. If Pineda can make it back and be effective, the Yankees could find themselves with seven viable starting pitchers. That could open up a range of possibilities, from moving Ivan Nova along with Hughes in the hopes of getting a better bat to dipping into the team’s young pitching cache in the bullpen, with one or two current starters taking their place.

As long as they do something. The Yankees have gone just 12-17 after a torrid 30-18 start. They’re averaging just more than three runs per game in those 29 games. Some of that’s destined for positive regression, particularly Robinson Cano hitting just .243/.345/.414 in his last 47 games. But when you’re relying on the likes of Lyle Overbay, David Adams, Jayson Nix, and Chris Stewart, you just might not be all that good. Or to put it in GIF terms, this.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Like the Yankees, the Orioles have stayed in the thick of the race despite some honkingly obvious flaws. Unlike the Yankees, those flaws lie almost entirely with the team’s starting rotation.

Start with the Sweaty Freddy Experience, which ended bloodily on Sunday with Garcia ceding seven runs in 2⅓ innings, then getting designated for assignment. Top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman is taking his place in the rotation. Though supremely talented, there are real questions about whether Gausman can hold his own as a starter for a playoff contender, given he’s just one year removed from getting drafted and got smoked in three of his five starts when he was up earlier this season, allowing seven home runs and a 7.66 ERA during that stretch (though with a solid 20-to-6 strikeout-to-walk rate). Jason Hammel has fallen off dramatically after a solid 2012, with a 5.09 ERA and 5.08 FIP. Chris Tillman? Miguel Gonzalez? Zach Britton? These are all placeholders, no. 4 starters being called upon to do better than that because the O’s don’t have anything close to an ace and Peter Angelos thought it’d be swell to pocket the nine figures he makes every year from the team’s ownership of regional sports network MASN.

Also like the Yankees, the team’s strengths have covered for their weaknesses so far, led by Chris Davis’s power barrage and stealth MVP candidate Manny Machado. But to have a shot at winning the toughest division in baseball or emerging from a crowded wild-card field, the Orioles will probably need to upgrade their pitching at some point. Getting a Cliff Lee–type hammer is almost certainly off the table, given Machado and Gausman aren’t going anywhere and Dylan Bundy’s Tommy John surgery (it’s entirely possible and defensible that Baltimore wouldn’t trade Bundy anyway, even if he were healthy). Still, given the plentiful but mostly mediocre options currently available, even a Matt Garza–caliber starter would do wonders. If the rumors of Edinson Volquez possibly coming over are true, start composing your angry letters now.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

In a way, having multiple, gaping lineup holes like the Orioles and Yankees do can work to your advantage. Find even a league-average player and you’ve already made a substantial upgrade. The Rays’ roster looks drastically different. They’ve got only one true superstar on the active roster. The rest is a whole lot of … decent. And unless you’re eyeing a blockbuster, it’s tough to upgrade from decent.

Only one Ray has produced more than two Wins Above Replacement as we sit just short of the season’s halfway point, and that’s Evan Longoria. Go down the rest of the roster and you’ll find several players you’d expect to be better who’ve instead produced pedestrian numbers, or worse. Ben Zobrist has shown his usual versatility, baserunning prowess, and healthy on-base percentage, but he’s slugging just .385. The hope was for Luke Scott to at least provide some pop, if nothing else, but he’s hit just four homers in 46 games. Desmond Jennings has improved after a weak rookie year at the plate, but a .256/.321/.433 line doesn’t quite scream monster breakout, even with half his games at pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. And those are just the hitters. Even with a recent hot streak, Rays starting pitchers rank just 21st in ERA, 17th in FIP, and (despite benefiting from the Trop) 18th in WAR. You can pin a huge chunk of that on David Price, who went from 2012 AL Cy Young winner to a 5.24 ERA (albeit with relatively respectable peripherals) before hitting the disabled list with a triceps injury. The bullpen has had its struggles, too, though expecting the Rays — and especially Fernando Rodney — to duplicate the unhittable voodoo they pulled off last year was asking for a lot.

Since the start of their successful post–Devil Rays era in 2008, Tampa Bay has made exactly two trades for major leaguers at the deadline. Those two players? Chad Qualls and Ryan Roberts. That timid approach has cost the team, most notably when the team’s failure to fortify its right-handed hitting, combined with the Rangers acquiring Cliff Lee at the height of his powers, resulted in Lee running them over in the 2010 playoffs. At 41-38, the Rays have tied their 2012 record for the worst showing this late in the season since this run of three playoff appearances in five years started. But there might be fewer obvious fits for a trade this year than in any other over the past half-decade. Price is expected back from the DL shortly, they’ll ride Wil Myers now that’s he’s finally made the Show, then wait for Zobrist to rediscover his pop and for the pen to continue to put its earlier rough patch in the rearview mirror — maybe with one decent arm added to the mix between now and July 31. Other than that, they’ll simply hope for better results in tight contests, given they own the worst record in the American League in one-run games, and the third-worst mark in extra-inning affairs.

Sitting on your hands while other contenders upgrade can be frustrating as a fan. But unless a superstar drops into their laps (or the rules change to allow a full-time pinch runner for Jose Molina), standing pat is probably the most logical course of action.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

We just covered the Jays and their needs, and nothing’s changed since then, other than the team racking up a few more wins to climb above .500.

As aggressive as it was in the offseason in upgrading its rotation, Toronto still ranks among the worst teams in baseball for starting pitching ERA. R.A. Dickey hurling a Maddux at the Rays on Wednesday marks the latest sign of hope that last year’s NL Cy Young winner might be returning to form. But Toronto needs to adjust its expectations at this point for the two other starters acquired over the winter. Mark Buehrle’s looked better after a brutal start to the year, but he’s likely just a decent innings-eater at this point in his career. Josh Johnson has been terribly erratic in between injuries, and expecting him to last the rest of the season without getting hurt again might be a tad overoptimistic. And those are the rotation slots about which the Blue Jays can sort of feel good. Esmil Rogers got whacked for three home runs his last time out, reminding us that he’s Esmil Rogers; Chien-Ming Wang likely awaits a similar reckoning.

Even if they’re optimistic that Brandon Morrow can come back and contribute, and that the lineup will tack on more runs (and save more) with Jose Reyes back and Brett Lawrie on the mend, this still isn’t anything close to a championship-caliber rotation. If Rogers Communications is willing to open its fat corporate wallet one more time for the deadline, pencil in the Jays as one of the most likely candidates to pursue a starting pitcher — a difference-maker of a starting pitcher.

Filed Under: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, MLB, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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